Friday, August 29, 2008

From City Council to Governor to VP?

Okay, it isn't local. But I have to say I really like McCain's VP choice for a number of reasons, and not just because she got her start on a small town local city council.

Sarah Palin is a Republican who actually has worked to shrink government, fight corruption, and have a common sense approach on energy, unlike most of our more national figures. She is also a refreshing change from the typical "two old white guys" approach of the Republican party.

She's a regular person who grew up playing high school basketball and running in road races with her family. She eloped with her husband because they did not have money for a wedding. She now has five kids, including a four month old. Indeed, up until she became pregnant she was still running 7 to 10 miles per day -- check out this story for more detail on her workout regimen! The real challenge for her won't be the vice presidency -- it will be keeping her fitness and raising healthy children in the D.C. environment!

All that said as a city councilman, a struggling off-and-on/ex-runner, and a parent, I can appreciate all that she seeks to balance in life and think that perspective is certainly helpful to have at the highest levels in D.C. I think this unexpected choice could be the boost McCain needs to make this into a real contest.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Watkinsville Woodyard

Adam Thompson wrote an interesting story about the Watkinsville woodyard for today's paper. The story is pretty accurate in its description of the situation, although I wish the ABH would have posted the years of correspondence we have had with Mr. Callaway regarding the appearance and condition of his property so readers would have had some context on how long this has been going on. But what I found most interesting about the story was the reaction it generated -- many people calling the council elitist, etc. Lets walk through the facts:

  1. Various mayors and city councils have been trying to get Mr. Callaway to clean up his act for more than 10 years now. This goes all the way back to the days of Mayor Sammy Sanders and Mayor Toby Hardigree. Incidents included illegal burning, vehicles in the road, obstructions of the sidewalk, etc.
  2. We have given Mr. Callaway multiple chances to just run a reasonably clean operation for years, and he couldn't keep it together. In fact, he operated for a year without a business license while the council waited for him to clean up. We have tried multiple types of "carrots" to get Mr. Callaway to clean up and unfortunately finally had to resort to a stick.
  3. At the end of the day, keeping old vehicles in various states of repair, unsecured wood, etc. was a liability for Mr. Callaway and the city as long as we knew it was going on. Something had to be done.
As for the comments after the article, I find these (and countless others in the Athens paper and elsewhere) one of the more disturbing aspects of "journalism" today. While papers search for "eyeballs" and use comments to measure the reaction to the story, those offering the "commentary" hide behind a shield of anonymity and are given free reign to spew venom and make whatever accusations they want in the name of "interactive" journalism. If only these people had the courage to at least attend a city council meeting, come to a planning meeting and contribute something positive, call and discuss their concerns in person, or even run for office...

The fact is, the vast majority of the citizens in Watkinsville expect to have a clean city. They don't want old vehicles littering yards and businesses. They enjoy the mix of history and new development. They want speeders to slow down and appreciate a responsive police force.

The mix of businesses in the city is as good as it has ever been (especially considering the economy), with everyone from traditional downtown merchants to auto parts stores to a full industrial park. We're not perfect, but I don't think anyone can accuse us of not listening to our constituents. As we grow, we'll continue to listen. We also know you're not going to please everyone in this business, especially in an area that is changing like ours.

Photo Credit: John Curry, Athens Banner-Herald

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Welcome to the Neighborhood

Fellow blogger Johnathan McGinty has moved to Oconee and offers some interesting observations about his transition....

Links and Thoughts

A few interesting tidbits from this week so far.

--The Athens Banner Herald's editorial suggesting the state end local assistance grants was an interesting read. This editorial from the Georgia Public Policy Foundation provides more detail. My suggestion is that these grants be available only to counties and municipalities of a certain size. Cities like Bishop, High Shoals, Bogart, and many others have budgets of less than $200,000 per year and occassionally have needs that would break their budget. Lets reserve these grants for the sewer line that might secure local industry for a town, grants and loans for historic preservation, in Georgia's smallest municiplaities, etc. While a piece of this $6 million per year pie is a drop in the bucket for many of the state's larger municipalities, for countless smaller cities these are a huge benefit. And they are a miniscule amount of the state budget. The bottom line: Tighten up the guidelines, and send the grants to our smallest cities. And lets be honest, there are a whole lot of state agencies that can use some belt tightening, despite the moans and groans that come with budget cuts.

--When you read the Oconee Enterprise this week, pay careful attention to a story in which the tax assessor's office floats the idea of raising the minimum acreage standards for conservation use taxing purposes. In my opinion, this is another attempt by the tax assessor's office to backdoor a tax increase as they have been doing through overly aggressive assessments for several years now (Here's who it typically works -- Commission: we lowered your tax rates! Tax Assessor: Congratulations, your home has increased 10% in value in the middle of a real estate recession! So your taxes go up anyway). Then juxtapose this article with Kate McDaniel's editorial about preserving Oconee's rural landscape. The fact is, the two things Kate cites (NBAF and the Georgia Transmission Corp's power lines) will have much less impact on the rural character of Oconee than this proposed tax policy change. NBAF is in Athens and while it will indeed impact a stretch of Milledge that leads to Oconee, the idea that it will change land use in Oconee is flawed. The power lines are being run to support regional needs, not local needs, including the commercial corridor along 316 and Atlanta Highway (full disclosure: GTC is a client of my company's). However, few things impact land use like tax policy. Increasing the tax burden on rural land, which requires little if any services, does nothing but incent the owners of that land (even if just a 10 acre "gentleman" farm) to do something different with it -- sell it, put a business on it, develop it, etc. Why shouldn't rural land in a conservation use have lower tax rates, regardless of parcel size? The bottom line: If Oconee wants to keep our rural areas, we need to make sure the fundamental economics work in a rural landowner's favor, and that local government is not sending one message on a land use map and saying something entirely different with the implementation of its tax policies.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Oconee Election Analysis and Growth

Lee Becker has completed what has to be the most detailed local election analysis in state history. He maps correlations and voting patterns between candidates and teases out some interesting facts. The big take away supports my contention all along: that this election was about growth, not alcohol. Most voters -- especially those in South Oconee -- seem to want to slow down the growth train in a major way.

I have been thinking a lot about growth lately, since I have been driving to Atlanta a bit more than usual (driving through Atlanta and Gwinnett always makes me think about growth, good and bad). A conclusion I am reaching is that there is something about a consistent, sustainable rate of growth that leads to more healthy communities (defined primiarly by sustainable and stable neighborhoods, long term value, and non-deteriorating commercial nodes). Perhaps in Oconee we need to see out our historic growth numbers -- 4, 5, 6% or whatever -- and seek to match that, both in terms of population growth and lots platted.

Almost every area that I pass through that has had abnormally rapid growth also sees a rapid decline years later. Even within similar geographic areas, this occurs. A great example is Gwinnett, which had the growth wave march outward 20+ years ago. Cars clog roads and students clog schools. Governments are then forced to permit high-density apartments and questionable commercial to "balance the tax base." It seems that after one generation of families (or 20+ years), deterioration of those neighborhoods begins. Similar trends can be seen in areas in South and West DeKalb, eastern Rockdale and Douglas County.

Fundamental principles in neighborhoods that seem to stand the test of time are high quality residential building standards, quality landscaping, established infrastructure (rather than building infrastructure after traffic was already bad), and neighborhood schools. You can also see these principles at work in Athens, Gainesville, Rome and other cities. Thoughts?

Friday, August 15, 2008

Gang of 10

Earlier this week I offered up some kudos to Sens. Isakson and Chambliss for actually working on a compromise (gasp!) bill that will make real progress towards energy independence. Today, in an op-ed in the AJC, they offer some more detail on their efforts.

It is apparent they are taking some heat over this as a result of attacks from talk entertainers Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Neal Boortz who want to hold up progress on energy in order to score points for John McCain. (Side note: I really wish Sen. McCain could find a way to score points on the issues).

Johnny and Saxby -- stick to your guns. Get something done. This isn't a campaign issue. It is an economic issue for the vast majority of Americans and Georgians, and contrary to popular belief, there are a lot of Republicans who recognize it will take more than just "drilling here and drilling now" to wean ourselves from our addiction to foreign oil.


Yesterday I attended the NBAF Public Hearing and spoke in favor of the project. In my opinion, the risks are few and are far outweighed by the need for stronger national and economic security in the agricultural area.

One of the fundamental localized disagreements is over the impact of jobs -- however many would come with NBAF -- and their importance to our community. Given the new data that emerged yesterday, the economic case for NBAF is incredibly strong. Among the lower paying jobs are $43,500 for administrative assistants. Given the comments of homeland security officials and veterinary experts yesterday, the security need for NBAF is also incredibly strong, and Athens and UGA have the right mix of researchers and location to serve our country.

I agree with many that the Milledge Avenue location is less than ideal -- it will certainly change the character of that cherished stretch of road forever. I do not believe it will have a notable effect on the Botanical Gardens, certainly no more than the aroma of the sewage treatment plant just down the river from the Garden on a hot summer day. All that said, sometimes we all have to give up a little bit of what we enjoy about our community for the greater good. In my opinion, this is one of those times.

At the afternoon session, those speaking in favor of the project outnumbered opponents 25-12; I would say the overall crowd was evenly divided. For whatever reason, I was the one speaker at the afternoon session who got to engage in a bit of debate with an audience member (details here and here). From what I hear, the evening session was a bit more energetic and more opposition was there. Apparently there were a few more speaking against the project than for it, but not by a large margin.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Links and Thoughts

A few links and thoughts for the day:
  • Regular readers know I am passionate about energy independence. This issue hits the U.S. globally (national defense, economic competitiveness) and locally (economic impact, lifestyle changes, etc.) This editorial from the Washington Post nails it, calling for the need to conserve but to drill as well. A key point the story makes that is easily missed: "The strongest argument against drilling is that it could distract the country from a pursuit of alternative sources of energy....No, the United States cannot drill its way to energy independence. But with the roaring economies of China and India gobbling up oil in the two countries' latter-day industrial revolutions, the United States can no longer afford to turn its back on finding all the sources of fuel necessary to maintain its economy and its standard of living." Even conservative Rep. Jack Kingston blogged about this editorial today, although he left out the ANWR part of the equation.
  • I also applaud Senators Chambliss and Isakson for being a part of the gang of 10 who are practical Republicans willing to compromise to get something accomplished on the energy front. To the Hannitys and Limbaughs and Boortzes who would rather watch blather about inflating tires, driving a hybrid that gets 18 MPG and in general use inaction on energy as an club to win the election rather than get something accomplished, shame on you. This approach is a sad commentary on how desperate Republicans are to beat Obama. Interesting coverage and commentary here and here. Transcript of Chambliss v. Boortz here.
  • It came out earlier this week that Mississippi is in the lead in the NBAF race because of some political shenanigans. Most people think this is bad news for Athens' chances (or good news in general, depending on your perspective). But did it not occur to anyone that this information was likely leaked for a reason, perhaps by another competitor in order to hurt Mississippi? My suspects would be Kansas and Texas, in that order, who have little community opposition and the strongest mix of political and technical strength among candidates. If the NBAF decision stretches past the election, the news of a Bush appointee meddling with the process will likely kill Mississippi's chances.
  • Go Jim Wooten. Or should I say go John Witte Jr. Thoughtful editorial and an amazing look at one of the most devastating trends in our society today -- that of one-parent households. An excerpt: "Without question, when 38 percent of children are born to single women and to men who are most likely walk-aways, serious changes in the law, in the media, in the conversations on campuses, and in the middle class and in churches, are required. Adults deserve every protection of the law —- until the moment they conceive. Then the law's obligation shifts to the interests of the child ...."
  • Newsweek and Time have both run big pieces lately on the end of the South or what is happening in the South. As always seems to happen, they fall to quickly into generalizations and Newsweek chooses to lead with the old "Southern angst over the civil war" approach. Lets face it, there are a few who still think about the "War of Northern Aggression." Well, maybe a few is too strong. Much too strong. The fact is, the vast majority of the South has moved on. Way on. Sure, we still have our issues down here. But what sets the South apart these days isn't race or an old legacy. It's pace. It's tradition, whether black or white. It's a certain energy and state of mind. It sure isn't a bunch of worrying over the lost cause that's got the South thinking a little bit harder about his presidential election than ones previous -- it's issues like energy independence (which hit our auto-driven, air conditioning society particularly hard), the contrast of growth and poverty, educational opportunities, and much more.
  • Speaking of the South, it took some serious guts for Rich Rusk to pen this piece on Moore's Ford. His group has done a lot to try to bring closure to this tragedy, and deserves credit. But he's right -- the re-enactments have transformed into a spectacle and are no longer necessary. But I have a feeling they will keep occuring as long as 1) the media keeps covering them and 2) no arrests are made in the case.

Watkinsville on the Web

Watkinsville now officially has a website -- visit

City Council budgeted for the site last year, and it has been up (pretty quietly) for several months. The goal is to make it easier for citizens, business owners, etc. to find basic information on the city and to download the various forms (permits, ordinances) rather than having to make a trip to the city for information. The site is rather utilitarian, but it certainly works well enough for what we want.

That said, if you have tips for improvement, let me know! As a small government, we can't afford a lot of bells and whistles, but major kudos to City Clerk Julie Sanders for getting this done amid all the other items she has on her plate.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Good News for South Oconee

Tuesday night's vote by the Board of Commissioners to deny a 51-acre subdivision South of Watkinsville along Highway 15 is some of the best news I have heard in months.

Shrewd planners always offer various excuses for developers who seek to push the envelope in terms of new development into rural Oconee. Common phrases include: "I'll pay to expand the infrastructure." "The land use plan is just a guide." "The agricultural zoning designation was just a holding category when zoning was implemented." "There are other subdivisions nearby." "It is on a state route so should get different consideration."

During the fast growth years, these excuses were used to justify subdivisions along Flat Rock Road, Greensboro Highway, and Astondale Road, which were inconsistent with the county's future land use plans, which are developed with citizen input.

The fact is, the vast majority of Oconee residents -- whether they live in North or South Oconee -- want the south end of the county to remain pastoral. It may not be "rural" forever, but many people that I knew growing up in Oconee have bought land towards Farmington and Antioch with one goal -- to enjoy a more rural and laid back experience for themselves, for their children, or for their grandchildren, whether that means a real farm, a "gentleman 's farm," a tree plantation or just some extra land to enjoy away from the hustle and bustle of North Oconee and Athens. Others who live in Watkinsville and elsewhere (including myself), love the fact that you can run, ride, or quickly drive just a few minutes and be out in the country and enjoy a taste of old Oconee. Oconee has been recognized by Progressive Farmer as one of the best rural places to live in America, and we need to fight to hold onto that designation. Check out the slideshow here and you'll have a strong understanding of why it's so important that we prevent the creep of development from slowly eroding South Oconee.

Commissioners Luke and Horton should be strongly applauded for drawing a line and honoring the wishes of many in Oconee County and not rezoning the property in question, despite the enormous pressure they probably got to approve this rezone and will continue to get from developers to rezone land while times are tough. The fact is, selling lots in subdivisions isn't easy anywhere in Oconee, and we have enough lots entitled to last the next 8 years anyway.

On the flip side, what does this mean for land owners? For speculators who bought land to upzone and flip, this is bad news. For long time owners who planned to sell or need to sell, you'll certainly need to plan on selling in larger parcels. For those who have bought in south Oconee in recent years and are building homes and farms, this is great news for your investment. Lets hope the county tax appraiser begins valuing land in South Oconee like rural land, and not as land that is being held for development.

Long term, South Oconee is still a great real estate value. By not turning the area into a land of one- and two-acre lots and subdivisions, we can actually create a stronger lifestyle proposition by keeping the character and feel of the land intact and providing a different type of environment and experience for those who want to choose a more rural ambience. The key with this decision, as with many others in goverment, is to not be afraid to do things a little differently than those communities that surround us.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Early Morning Real Estate Tips

Since my most recent run in with achilles tendonitis has pretty much ended my long-time tradition of long Saturday or Sunday morning runs, I have often taken to getting up early and going for a walk with whichever one of the kids wakes up first on the weekend. Lately, it has been little Aaron, who is always a good partner for a walk around town, whether awake or asleep.

While walking Saturday, I was struck by the number of improvements and additions that have been made to the residential neighborhoods of Watkinsville. Despite the fact that we review and approve these projects as a city council, sometimes it is tough to see the forest for the trees. So Sunday morning I decided to take some photos and illustrate the trend and discuss it a bit here. All told, when one steps back, the total investment in existing neighborhoods in Watkinsville is well into the millions of dollars and is the equivalent of several stand alone neighborhoods.

There have been essentially two varieties of residential reinvestment in Watkinsville -- renovations and infill development. Renovations are just that -- someone moves into a home and makes it over, increasing property values and updating what is often an historic home. Infill development is when someone buys a lot (or several lots) and builds either a new home or several homes on that lot, depending on what the zoning allows. If you're interested in a smart real estate play in a down market, read on and take a look at the demand for context sensitive homes along many of Watkinsville's most highly regarded streets.

The Big Picture

There are two things about Watkinsville that have made renovations and infill a different animal than in other areas. For one thing, we have numerous large, vacant lots that appear ready for homes. Sunday morning I walked past at least six lots that could accomodate one (and in some cases two) traditional homes. The one pictured below is on South Main Street, across from the Golden Pantry.

Watkinsville also has a very eclectic style. Unlike Madison, we don't have all historic homes. Unlike Five Points in Athens, it's not all bungalows. In fact, I have always found the architectural variety of Watkinsville one of its most endearing traits. If you're going to build in Watkinsville, we aren't going to require an antebellum home, although we do have standards, especially along our historic and scenic corridors that we identified in the Your Watkinsville visioning process several years ago. But a benefit to infill development is the fact that homes are built over time and help give a neighborhood an established feel, rather than the uniformity that often occurs when all the homes are built in a 1-2 year period.

Much has been made in recent years of the improvements to Watkinsville's older commercial buildings and downtown district (including Ashford Manor and the Chappelle Gallery, which still feature residential uses but also have commercial uses), and rightly so. However, just as significantly (and less noticeable), has been the revitalization that has occured in some of Watkinsville's established neighborhoods over the past four years. Lets look at a few specific areas that have seen the most investment and then we'll see where this trend might go next.

Simonton Bridge/Whitehall Corridor: Several of the historic homes on Simonton Bridge Road have been improved in recent years, and in the past two years the home at the corner of 2nd and Simonton Bridge has been renovated spectacularly (see red home pictured). A new Southern Living home is also under construction between 2nd and 3rd street (pictured). Several other large lots remain on this road that would make wonderful home sites. At the edge of the city, five Southern Living style homes are going in on a parcel that use to house some overgrown brush and a trailer. Numerous other owners along Simonton Bridge take wonderful care of modest but historic homes with enormous character. Not surprisingly, Simonton Bridge, along with South Main and Jackson, were recognized as the favorite three streets of city residents during our visioning process.

2nd Street: This short stretch of road between Simonton Bridge and Barnett Shoals has seen the addition of one spectacular new home (stone house pictured) on a former wooded lot and a great renovation of a small bungalow. These efforts have really changed the character of the street. Along with the eclectic Chapel on the corner and cousin Mack's charming brick cottage, 2nd street is now second to none in terms of charm in Watkinsville. If the Memorial Baptist Church parsonage is ever restored, this will be an amazing little road.

3rd Street: Several wonderful renovations have taken place along 3rd Street, including the restoration of very different styles of homes. Just off 3rd Street sits Pecan Bluff, the only multi-family infill in Watkinsville. When complete, Pecan Bluff will be a standout development. Also pictured here are a board and batten cottage that has seen significant improvements and a brick craftsman cottage flanked by two magnificent Deodora Cedars that has been restored in recent years.

Harden Hill: Harden Hill is one of the oldest roads in the area, being the former stagecoach route between Watkinsville and Madison. Today, it has a wide variety of homes. One is currently being renovated and others have been added through the years. There is currently at least one historic home on Harden Hill that would be a great candidate for renovation.

Jackson Street: The grand dame of Watkinsville, with its low traffic count, beautiful trees and stunning homes. Recent years have seen a beautiful cottage added on what were once two vacant lots (pictured) and renovations to many of the homes on this wonderful street that is a short walk from downtown. A few homes remain on Jackson that could be improved, but many have been improved and sold in recent years, or have been sold and await new owners (and improvements).

S. Main Street: Most of the old homes on South Main remain, and lets hope that never changes. Developers have acquired lots (one tore down an existing home without a permit and still hopes to "upzone" the property), and several other homes were essentially "demolished by neglect" before the city passed an ordinance banning this practice in historic neighborhoods. There has been one neat home squeezed onto South Main -- lets hope there are a few more homes added in coming years on vacant lots on this historic corridor, and that property owners continue to care for the existing homes with the respect they deserve.

What's Next?

So, more importantly, where are the next areas where this trend may continue? The common threads of all these areas appear to be mature landscaping and tree canopy, empty lots, some historic housing stock, proximity to downtown, and a variety of housing styles. These are all themes that the Watkinsville City Council has noticed and is seeking to encourage with infrastructure investments like street trees, sidewalks, and historic preservation.

Streets that might move in this direction in the future include New High Shoals Road within the city limits (one home pictured below), Spring Circle, Barnett Shoals, Lee Street, and perhaps even Water Street (historic cottage pictured), depending on what happens with potential commercial in that area. Another critical factor would be the potential addition of sidewalks along South Main St. and New High Shoals and along Simonton Bridge to provide better pedestrian access to downtown areas.

Another town with some unique housing stock and the potential to see a similar impact is North High Shoals, especially with the new school coming next year and the scenic Apalachee River a short walk from downtown.

All that said, I shoudn't gloss over the challenges of infill redevelopment. Long-time neighbors are often skeptical of new homes at best, and many developers attempt to reach to far and over densify lots that they paid too much for. However, I'm convinced that healthy infill development is an important part of the future of Watkinsville, as long as it can be accomplished while preserving our historic homes and the character of our city. What do you think?